Twenty bold predictions for 2012
Peyton Manning will lead the Broncos to the playoffs, while Eli Manning sits home
Jared Cook and Kyle Rudolph won't be elite, but will have breakout years at TE
Carson Palmer will be benched, and Terrelle Pryor will be the one to spark Raiders
Predictions time is a silly season of a whole 'nother sort in the NFL, but you've got to do it, knowing there will be plenty of misses among the occasional hit. Why, just last season, in this very column, I foresaw Jake Locker being the cream of the rookie crop of quarterbacks, opined that Rob Ryan would be more impactful as the new defensive coordinator in Dallas than Wade Phillips would be as the new defensive coordinator in Houston, and had Josh McDaniels coaching Rams quarterback Sam Bradford to a 4,000-yard season and the playoffs.
Then again, I did also forecast Nnamdi Asomugha's underwhelming first season in Philadelphia, Detroit's return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and the Saints' third-down back Darren Sproles outperforming his predecessor in New Orleans, Reggie Bush. So there's that.
And now, here goes, another 20 bold predictions as we approach the start of the 2012 regular season. As always, your results may vary:
1. Peyton Manning's comeback in Denver remains a work in progress, but when the regular season comes to a close, he and his Broncos will be back in the playoffs while little brother Eli and his defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants will not. And that will make the G-Men the first NFC champion to not return to the playoffs the following year since the 2007 Bears missed the dance. A combination of key injuries, a killer schedule and a bit of post-Super Bowl syndrome will cost New York any shot to repeat.
2. With the handsomely paid pass rusher Mario Williams being as good as advertised, the Buffalo Bills' new 4-3 defense will take a significant step forward under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt, leading to the end of the team's NFL-worst 12-year playoff drought. The Bills will close enough of the gap that exists between them and the Patriots in the AFC East, leading to a 10-6 record and a wild-card berth.
3. Barring an injury to Mark Sanchez or the Jets opening a game in the wildcat formation to mess with a defense, Tim Tebow won't make a start at quarterback in 2012. He will, however, challenge running back Shonn Greene for the team rushing lead throughout much of the season, before succumbing to Greene in the end.
4. With Russell-mania raging out of control early on in the season, the Seahawks will feed off the energy and veteran-like execution of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and emerge as one of the surprise teams of the year. Seattle will compete with San Francisco for supremacy in the NFC West all season, before settling for a wild-card slot. While Wilson will be a huge part of the story, the Seahawks' stout young defense will come to the fore down the stretch.
5. Of all the ex-head coaches hired by new teams as an assistant (see Tony Sparano with the Jets, Raheem Morris in Washington, Todd Haley in Pittsburgh, Jim Caldwell in Baltimore, Jack Del Rio in Denver and Todd Bowles in Philadelphia), making the biggest impact will be Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. His presence in New Orleans will benefit the Saints more than Sean Payton's absence hurts, with the man they call "Spags'' boosting his suspension-depleted defense (24th ranked in 2011) into the league's top 10.
6. None of the three new head coaches in Florida will field playoff teams this season, but Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano easily will better the Bucs' 4-12 record of last year and have his club being identified by year's end as one to watch in 2013. Alas, such optimism will not prevail in Jacksonville or Miami, where Mike Mularkey and Joe Philbin are taking over, respectively.
7. Of the slew of running backs returning from major injury in 2011, no one's contributions will be more pivotal to their team's playoff contention than DeMarco Murray in Dallas. If the Cowboys can run the ball effectively, Dallas won't have an issue with fourth-quarter leads routinely evaporating. Chicago's Matt Forte, Buffalo's Fred Jackson, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Oakland's Darren McFadden, Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson are other lead rushers on their way back this year.
8. There won't be a new Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham-level talent to emerge at tight end this season, but Tennessee's Jared Cook in the AFC and Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph in the NFC will be two of the busiest pass-catchers at the NFL's new glamour position. Cook and new Titans starting quarterback Jake Locker have a good feel for each other in the passing game, as do Rudolph and Vikings' second-year starter Christian Ponder. When both quarterbacks get in trouble, they'll be looking first and foremost for their tight end.
9. Oakland's Carson Palmer will be benched at some point in the first month of the season, and don't be surprised if it's the still-raw Terrelle Pryor -- and not backup Matt Leinart -- who winds up giving the Raiders offense the spark it's looking for. The panic trade ex-Oakland head coach Hue Jackson made last October looks worse all the time.
10. There is an NFC team that's taking a step back after finally making the playoffs in 2011, but it's not the 49ers, as quite a few pundits have projected. It's the Lions. Detroit will score a bundle of points in the passing game, but its secondary and running game are huge question marks, and keeping Matthew Stafford healthy for another 16 games is mandatory.
11. Baltimore's defense will show its age at times this season, and the loss of disruptive outside linebacker Terrell Suggs can't be completely offset. But the Ravens, even with a tough first-place schedule, will be back in the playoffs for an NFL-best fifth consecutive season thanks to an offense that is ready to carry the load. Joe Flacco will put up career-best numbers in the no-huddle offense the Ravens will feature, and receiver Torrey Smith will be a force in the team's vertical passing game.
12. After posting just four 100-yard rushing games in 2011, Tennessee's Chris Johnson will double that total this season, finishing with more than 1,400 yards and vaulting himself into contention for the league's Comeback Player of the Year award (which a certain Denver quarterback will win). But the Titans will again narrowly miss out on the playoffs, as Jake Locker's education at quarterback continues.
13. With improved cornerback play in the form of free-agent addition Brandon Carr and first-round pick Morris Claiborne, the Dallas defense will at least resemble a Rob Ryan-coached unit that's able to both apply consistent pressure and play solid coverage. Not that it will quite get the Cowboys over the hump and into the NFC playoffs.
14. At some point in the second half of the season, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith will concede his mistake and acknowledge that veteran head coach Norv Turner is no longer the right fit for his chronically underachieving team. (OK, so some predictions are bolder than others).
15. New Bears receiver Brandon Marshall failed to reach double digits in receptions in any game last season, the first time that's happened since his rookie year of 2006 season in Denver. Reunited with ex-Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler in Chicago, Marshall will have at least five such games this season, a career-high total in that department. He and Cutler combined for three 10-plus-catch games in 2007 and 2008 in Denver.
16. With a strong comeback season from quarterback Matt Schaub in a contract year, and even more disruptive young talent on defense in the form of rookie outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, the Texans will build solidly on the success of 2011, winning the AFC South again and returning to the playoffs. Once there, with a healthy Schaub this time, Houston will make some serious postseason noise (that's called a teaser for my Super Bowl pick, due out at SI.com Tuesday).
17. Quality quarterbacking is more important than quality coaching in the NFL, and that point will be vividly on display in New Orleans this season. Sean Payton's perceived value to the Saints will be lessened slightly rather than strengthened by his absence, thanks to the continued excellence of quarterback Drew Brees. To be sure, Payton will be missed. But with Brees still there, he'll be missed a lot less than if it were No. 9 who got suspended.
18. None of the four first-round rookie quarterbacks will play for winning teams in 2012. But while Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden will not convince anyone that the quest to find a franchise quarterback is over in Miami or Cleveland, there will be no doubt by season's end that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the right calls to make at the game's most pivotal position. If it's not apparent already.
19. Alex Smith will endure a season-long struggle to fully involve receiver Randy Moss in the 49ers passing game. Moss won't go all 2010 on his new team and lose interest in the proceedings, because he knows he can't afford to at this point in his career, and San Francisco won't be a losing team. But it'll be a one-and-done experience for Moss in the Bay Area, and Jim Harbaugh's early enthusiasm for the move will not be supported by the results.
20. By late September, thunder-footed rookies Greg Zuerlein in St. Louis and Justin Tucker in Baltimore will make the Rams and Ravens very happy they got younger at kicker. Jeff Fisher and John Harbaugh will find themselves feeling good about attempting any field goal from 55 yards on in. And they weren't going to say that about veterans Josh Brown or Billy Cundiff.
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